Each year, throughout the month of November, our major Shinto shrine, Kashima Jingu, displays chrysanthemums. Stands of them line the main path leading to the gate. On weekends, parents bring young children, dressed in their best clothes of either Western or Japanese style. The kids are often given bags of candy called chitose-ame, or "longevity candy", for November 15th is Shichi-go-san - literally "7, 5, 3" - a day for parents to pray at the shrine for the health and longevity of their children at those ages.
We decided to have a look at the mums on Sunday. As often is the case for us with Kashima Jingu, there was a pleasant surprise in store for us. In this case, we stumbled upon a non-publicized event that was rich in Japanese history and culture.
When the archers left the haiden, K came over and asked me, "don't you want to follow them?" Well, yeah (I'm not so swift at times.) So we did, and they quietly moved off into the woods to a little visited area where there is an archery range. As we got reached the area, I hung back as K approached one of the shrine's helpers to ask if we could watch. We were given permission and a woman in kimono beckoned us to an area to one side of the range where we could see both the archers and their target. There were only about six people, including ourselves, watching. The clouds occasionally sent down a light mist and a gentle breeze rustled the surrounding trees and bamboo. The only other sound was that of birds calling.
The first archer came forward from the group and kneeled. He went through a lengthy ritual of loosening parts of his kimono, putting on his glove, receiving his bow, addressing the target area and so on, until he was ready to shoot. The proceedings were all done in slow motion almost as in a dream. I think he must have been the instructor for the group, or senior member. He had a special arrow with a large wooden head made to whistle as it flies. His shot was to signal the beginning of the event and was fired, not at a target (which had yet to be hung), but at a tarp where the target would be placed. He hit it dead center. (Of course.)
Japanese archery is called "Kyudo" which means "the way of the bow" and is a popular sport here and also practiced around the world. I have written of it before, as one of K's students was a high school champion in the art, in the post titled (oddly enough) "The Way of the Bow". (See also the post "Yabusame" about the art of archery on horseback). The event we were watching this day was not however a regular competition, but rather appeared, due to the clothing and ritual motions, to be more of a religious one for the shrine. In public competitions the clothing is much more simple and practical and the shooting is done much more quickly, though all the same principles of Kyudo are observed. As I have felt before at Kashima Jingu, save for a few electric lights, it felt as though we had been transported several hundreds of years back in time.
A target was secured over the tarp. I'm not sure what the distance was. Typically, Kyudo targets are 28 meters from the archer, but sometimes 21 meters is used. With the target up, two archers came forward who would take turns shooting at the target. I made a video clip of one of them as he fired his arrow. I hope you enjoy it. It runs 3 minutes 40 seconds. Be sure to listen as well as watch to get the full effect of what it was like to be there.
The voice you hear at the end is from the judging stand near the target. A person raises a stick with a pompom on it to indicate a hit and announces it.
After the next archer had released his arrow, we quietly took our leave and headed back, bowing our thanks to those who had allowed us to share in this experience that so few people were witnessing.
A little girl clings to her dad as he snaps a shot of her brother and mom in front of the haiden.
While we were leaving the shrine and walking the two blocks to the car, more rain began to fall, still gently, but ever more steadily, adding to the quiet, peaceful atmosphere as we let the events of the day and our good fortune sink in.